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Safe water falls to cities - New legislation will put municipalities ‘in the driver’s seat’

by Colin McKim - The Orillia Packet & Times

Municipalities will soon have to get their feet wet as part of a provincial plan to make local governments more responsible for protecting drinking water sources.

“We want to put municipalities in the driver’s seat” said Ian Smith, director of the drinking water management branch of the Ministry of the Environment.

“It’s local communities that can best decide how to protect these resources.”

On Thursday morning, Smith provided an overview of the Clean Water Act – a bill expected to become law this spring – to a gathering of municipal officials and regional conservation experts at the Highwayman Inn in Orillia.

In his 2002 inquiry into the Walkerton tragedy, in which seven people died from contaminated drinking water; Justice Dennis O’Connor recommended protecting the fresh water supply on a watershed basis, Smith noted.

The City of Orillia is part of the South Georgian Bay-Lake Simcoe Watershed Region, stretching from Orangeville to Huntsville and from south of Lake Simcoe to Georgian Bay.

Within this large region are the Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority, the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority, the Severn Sound Environmental Association and the municipalities within the Black-Severn watershed.

Under the new legislation, municipalities will be expected to work with area conservation authorities to identify water sources that need special protection, focus on potential threats and decide if immediate action needs to be taken.

The Ministry of the Environment will still manage water on the broad scale, but local governments will have power to prohibit certain land uses based on a perceived threat to water quality.

The Clean Water Act will give municipalities the authority to require businesses, farmers and other landowners to take steps to remove significant risks.

Much of the recommended practice is common sense, said Don Goodyear, manager of source water protection for this region.

“Don’t pave over a recharge area,” he said. “Don’t built paint factories in vulnerable areas.”

Keeping contaminants out of aquifers, lakes and wells is cost-effective and beneficial to public health, said Goodyear.

“It’s 40 times more expensive to treat ground water contamination than prevent it,” he noted.

The province is paying $67.5 million over five years for technical studies and additional conservation staff and resources.

The responsibility and cost of implementing the water-protection strategies will fall primarily to municipalities and landowners.

“We don’t expect it to be hugely expensive,” said Smith.

Orillia Mayor Ron Stevens and Coun. Ralph Cipolla attended the session, along with several city works staff.

Stevens told The Packet & Times he would like to know more about the eventual costs to the city.

“It’s like everything else – where are we going to get the money to pay?”

Oro-Medonte Coun. Ralph Hough said costs were also a concern to him.

“In 1999, we were paying $20,000 (for memberships in conservation authorities). Now we’re paying $300,000.

Cipolla said he welcomes the new regulations and stronger protective measures.

“(Water is) one of the most important commodities to sustain life,” Cipolla said.

“We have to do as much as we can to make sure it’s protected.”